2010 - %3, October

Some (Modestly) Good News on Secrecy You May Have Missed

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Lest readers complain that this blog never reports good news, I want to pass on a bit of it. Later this week (or perhaps next), President Obama will sign an Intelligence Authorization Act that expands congressional oversight of covert government actions. Normally, a small group of legislators known as the "Gang of Eight"—the top leaders of both parties in the House and the Senate, as well as the chair and ranking member of both chambers' intelligence committees—are supposed to receive detailed briefings on covert actions. Now, the intelligence community will also be required to provide "general descriptions" of such actions to every member of both the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Even the ACLU, which has slammed the Obama administration on any number of issues, likes this bill. "This policy will ensure that this and future administrations are more accountable. It will also serve as a check on the 'Gang of Eight' and the intelligence committees as they will no longer be able to claim ignorance of national security programs as they have in the past," Laura Murphy, the director of the ACLU's Washington lobbying shop, said last week. 

What remains to be seen is how the new briefing rules will work in practice. The CIA itself has admitted flaws in the process. Last May, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched a political controversy by claiming the CIA had lied to her in 2002 briefings about so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques." That June, in response to Pelosi's claim, the CIA Inspector General's office conducted a review of the agency's congressional briefings. It [PDF] found that while members of the CIA division responsible for interrogations repeatedly claimed that Pelosi and other members of Congress had been "fully briefed," they never "provide[d] specifics about those briefings, nor did they source their assertions."

That July, CIA director Leon Panetta reportedly told a closed-door session of the House intelligence committee that the CIA had failed to tell Congress about a number of "significant actions" between 2001 and June 2009. In a letter to Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the committee, chairman Silvestre Reyes wrote that the panel "has been misled, has not been provided full and complete notifications, and (in at least one occasion) was affirmatively lied to" by the agency.

So to wrap up: it's a good thing that the congressional briefing rules are getting tougher. But there's nothing to stop the CIA from misleading, failing to notify, or simply lying to Congress unless members take affirmative measures to force the intelligence community to play by the rules. That would start with holding the people responsible for the incorrect, misleading, or false Bush-era briefings accountable for their actions. If people know there are no consequences for breaking the rules, they're much more likely to break them.

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Hey, Kids! All Aboard the Clean Coal Bus!

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an astroturf front for a group of big coal, railroads and power companies, is on tour with a 42-foot "mobile classroom" bus. The bus is mostly traveling in coal communities throughout West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana, wending its way through university campuses and community gatherings.

The bus features exhibits demonstrating why coal is getting cleaner and reminds the locals that moving towards clean coal preserves jobs. Scientific proof of coal's cleanliness comes in the form of a video interview with Dr. David Bayless, director of the industry-sponsored Ohio Coal Research Center

The bus isn't the first of ACCCE's educational campaigns. Last year, the coalition targeted kids with coloring books that featured lumps of coal getting "clean" in the shower, and then ended the year with little coal Christmas carolers.

 

 

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 7, 2010

Thu Oct. 7, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

Sgt. Kent Marshall, a tanker with Company C, 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, instructs a member of the Basra Special Weapons and Tactics team on engaging a target while moving during a joint training session in Basra Oct. 4. Photo via U.S. Army.

Corn on "Countdown": Pelosi's Plan to Tattoo the GOP

Thu Oct. 7, 2010 12:42 AM EDT

David Corn joined Keith Olbermann on MSNBC's Countdown to discuss Nancy Pelosi's tactic of linking the GOP to big business and why President Obama may need to do the same if the Democrats want to catch up in the polls.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

The Chamber of Commerce

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 11:38 PM EDT

After yesterday's report from ThinkProgress that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce "funds its political attack campaign out of its general account, which solicits foreign funding," Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has asked the Federal Elections Commission to investigate whether the Chamber is violating election law by raising money from foreign donors. That's a fine idea. Given the astronomical amount of spending the Chamber is doing this election cycle, I think Democrats would be wise to spotlight their role as vigorously as possible.

This was something that occurred to me a couple of weeks ago while I was watching one of the Chamber's attack ads aimed at Barbara Boxer. The ad itself is nothing special, but what struck me was the tagline at the end: "The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is responsible for the content of this advertising." What do most people think of when they hear that? Well, most people aren't plugged into DC politics, so what they think of is the local chamber of commerce. You know, some local bankers, car dealers, retailers, and so forth. Business oriented, sure, but mostly folks who don't have any big ideological axe to grind. Civic boosters. Pillars of the community.

But that's not what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is anymore. Under CEO Tom Donohue it long ago became a hard right-wing lobbying group blessed with a huge war chest dedicated to electing Republican candidates who will watch out for corporate interests. Their advertising, I suspect, is a lot more credible than it should be because most people don't know this. Democrats would be well advised to start a determined campaign that gets the word out about who the Chamber really is these days.

More Growth, Please

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 9:57 PM EDT

Remember that record pile of cash that U.S. companies have amassed over the past year? It's finally being put to use:

For months, companies have been sitting on the sidelines with record piles of cash, too nervous to spend. Now they're starting to deploy some of that money — not on hiring workers or building factories, but to prop up their share prices.

Sitting on these unprecedented levels of cash, U.S. companies are buying back their own stock in droves. So far this year, firms have announced they will purchase $273 billion of their own shares, more than five times as much compared with this time last year, according to Birinyi Associates.

....Some companies are buying back shares partly because they don't want to invest in developing new products or services while consumer demand remains weak, analysts said. "They don't know what they want to do with all the cash they're sitting on," said Zachary Karabell, president of RiverTwice Research.

I've always hated companies that do share buybacks. I know all the arguments in favor of it, but as far as I'm concerned it's nothing more than a desperate effort to curry favor with shareholders and meet short-term bonus targets, carried out by a management team that has no idea how to grow their business. And if they don't know how to grow their business, they should just announce that they've decided to adopt the corporate model of a regulated utility and start paying out regular, steadily growing dividends.

End of rant. Aside from all that, though, this particular news tells us once again that the most likely cause of slow economic growth right now isn't structural, it's cyclical. People aren't buying stuff, and because of that businesses aren't investing in growth. Increase demand, and they'll start up again.

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The Future of the Tea Parties

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 3:16 PM EDT

The tea party movement is all about small government and constitutional values, right? But what about hot button social issues? Stephanie Mencimer reports that the leadership of the Tea Party Patriots met in Orange County, California, a few days ago to chat about that:

Over the weekend, TPP leaders met with members of the Council for National Policy to try to raise some money. CNP is a secretive and powerful club that has worked to make the Republican Party more socially conservative. Founded in 1981 by Tim LaHaye, the evangelical minister, political organizer, and author of the Left Behind books about the coming apocalypse, CNP's board reads like a who's who of the GOP's evangelical wing.

In September [...] Bob Reccord, CNP's executive director, moderated a chummy panel discussion of tea party activists, including Tea Party Patriots national coordinators Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler. Meckler, who often emphasizes that the tea party movement does not touch social issues because they are too divisive, told the audience that in fact, tea partiers were angry because of "this idea of separation of church and state. We're angry about the removal of God from the public square." The comment suggested that at least the Tea Party Patriots weren't averse to joining the culture wars — at least if it meant tapping social conservatives' significant fundraising abilities.

No, probably not averse at all. Add that to Monday's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Bill Kristol and friends, urging tea partiers not to include national defense in their zeal for budget cutting, and what do you get? Answer: a bunch of people who believe in low taxes, reactionary social policy, a big military, and cutting spending for all welfare spending that goes to people other than them.

Does anyone seriously think the tea party movement won't eventually support all that stuff? Of course it will, because it's the conservative wing of the GOP on steroids, not some brand new grassroots reaction to TARP and the stimulus bill. The sooner everyone figures that out, the better.

Pro-Life's 28 Days Later Billboard

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 2:38 PM EDT

This rather befuddling pro-life billboard (left-hand side of picture) was spotted in Brooklyn by a Femisting blogger. The billboard, sponsored by Pro-Life Across America, says that a fetus's arms are formed by 28 days after conception. If you consider limb buds the same as arms (kind of like seeing an acorn as an oak tree) this is true. But what the billboard doesn't tell you is that even by 35 days, those arms end in an amphibian-looking flippers (see picture at right-hand side). According to the Mayo Clinic, at 35 days after conception, the entire fetus could fit on a pencil eraser and doesn't have eyes, facial features, gender, bones, or lower limbs. It also still has a tail.

Honestly, the fetus 35 days after conception looks a bit like something out of a horror film more than an adorable infant. Aside from biological niceties, what is "born to ride"? PLAA says that the ad is meant to convey that little boy (all of them!) just LOVE to play with tricycles, bikes, and other wheeled vehicles. I'm going to avoid discussing the sexism of this and just say that with the bandanna and vest, it kind of looks like they want the baby to take a spin on a motorcycle. PLAA has another, more inaccurate billboard that says babies have facial features like eyes, ears, and tongue at 28 days after conception. As you can see by the illustration of a fetus at 35 days, that's not exactly true. These billboards are disorienting at best, and deliberately deceptive at worst. But they might want to re-think the "personhood begins at conception" idea. If fetuses really do get personal rights, the world might look like this video.

"Not an Incidental Public Relations Problem"

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 2:30 PM EDT

The Obama administration misled the public about the size of BP's spill and misrepresented a report about how much oil remained in the Gulf following clean-up efforts, according to one of four staff reports released today by the National Oil Spill Commission, the panel convened by the President to investigate the disaster. According to the report, the White House also deliberately kept a worst-case scenario estimate under wraps, despite a federal agency's request to make the information public.

Initially, BP claimed that 1,000 barrels oil per day were leaking from the well, an estimate the administration adopted. But, according to the report ("The Amount and Fate of the Oil"), "Neither the Coast Guard nor BP divulged the data or methodology behind this estimate. Based on the information we have to date, it appears the figure came from BP without supporting documentation."

When the administration revised its estimate to 5,000 barrels per day a week after the spill, it again provided the public with dubious information. The report indicates that the number was basically made up. The figure came from a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who had no experience making this kind of estimate, used "imprecise" methodology, and did not rely on established or peer-reviewed methods. From the report:

This is not a criticism of the scientist, who made clear his assumptions and that the 5,000 bbls/day figure was a "very rough estimate." His stated intent in disseminating the estimate was to warn government officials that the flow rate was multiple times greater than 1,000 bbls/day.
Despite the acknowledged inaccuracies of the NOAA scientist's estimate, and despite the existence of other and potentially better methodologies for visually assessing flow rate (discussed below), 5,000 bbls/day was to remain the government's official flow-rate estimate for a full month, until May 27, 2010.

The 5,000 barrels estimate would prove to be only one-twelfth of the actual rate of flow from the well. Meanwhile, government responders were aware that BP had listed a 162,000-barrels-per-day "worst-case scenario" estimate in its original drilling permit. According to officials interviewed by commission staff, NOAA wanted to make that information public in late April or early May, but the White House Office of Management and Budget quashed the agency's request.

The administration's claims about the flow rate from the well and its oil budget report, touted as describing the "fate of the oil" in the Gulf, "were the source of significant controversy, which undermined public confidence in the federal government's response to the spill," the report also notes, concluding that it was "not an incidental public relations problem."

The absence of trust fuels public fears, and those fears in turn can cause major harm, whether because the public loses confidence in the federal government's assurances that beaches or seafood are safe, or because the government's lack of credibility makes it harder to build relationships with state and local officials, as well as community leaders, that are necessary for effective response actions.

The spill commission's report states that the administration's oil budget report, released on August 4, was intended to be an "operational tool" for responders, but administration officials promoted it as an official estimate and "obscured some important shortcomings" in the report. For instance, it claimed the oil was "biodegrading quickly" but did not provide sources or data to support that conclusion, or even define what "quickly" meant in this context. The purpose of the budget, the commission's report states, "was to tell responders how much oil was present for clean-up operations, not to tell the public how much oil was still in Gulf waters." The report faults White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner for presenting the budget "as a scientific assessment of how much of the oil was 'gone'," when it did not support her claims.

The report also notes that false statements by administration officials that the oil budget was "peer-reviewed" "likely contributed to public perception of the budget's findings as more exact and complete than the budget, as an operational tool, was designed to be."

Based on interviews with personnel who worked on the spill response, the commission's report is preliminary and has yet to be fully endorsed by the commission's members. The commission also released staff reports today on the use of dispersants in response to the spill, decision-making in the Unified Command, the history of offshore drilling, and the implications of drilling in the Arctic.

I'll have more on the commission's report on dispersants shortly.

Revisiting McDonald's

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 1:46 PM EDT

The chart on the right is not a very exciting one, but it's important. It's a followup to last week's post about McDonald's threatening to cancel its current healthcare policy because of the passage of ACA. As you recall, the original story in the Wall Street Journal was wrong in some respects and overblown in others, and in any case, the "mini-med" policy that McDonald's currently offers is pretty sucky. Getting rid of it would be one of the benefits of ACA, not an "unintended consequence."

Today, Aaron Carroll puts some numbers to "sucky" and I've added some bloggy value by converting his numbers into a colorful chart. The current McDonald's policy is the red bar on the right: it costs employees $1,664 per year and offers maximum coverage of $10,000.

Now compare that to what a McDonald's employee can get when ACA kicks in in 2014. At minimum wage, he or she will be eligible for Medicaid and will have to pay nothing. A $9/hour, subsidized private insurance will cost $858. At $10/hour it will cost $1,030. Even at $12/hour — more than virtually anyone makes at McDonald's — the premium is $1,720, only a dollar a week more than the current mini-med policy.

And that's for real health insurance. Under ACA, the vast majority of McDonald's workers will get genuine health insurance that's either free or no more costly than even the laughable micro-med option that offers maximum coverage of $2,000. When 2014 rolls around and McDonald's does away with both its mini and micro-med policies, that won't be an unintended consequence of ACA. It will be the whole point.